American Poetry in the New Century
BY JOHN BARR
Poetry in this country is ready for something new. We are at the start of a century, and that, in the past, has marked new beginnings for the art. Pound and Eliot launched Modernism in the opening years of the twentieth century, in the pages of this magazine. And in the opening years of the nineteenth, 1802 to be exact, Wordsworth launched poetry's Romantic era with the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. (The centennial calendar does not go further back. The early years of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did not mark new departures for English poetry. And American poetry found its true beginnings in Whitman and Dickinson, who did their writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, not at either end.)
But it's not really a matter of calendar. American poetry is ready for something new because our poets have been writing in the same way for a long time now. There is fatigue, something stagnant about the poetry being written today. If one could say that a characteristic of Romantic poetry was that there was way too much of it written once it became established (weekend versifiers to this day still write in Romantic modes), one could say the same of modern poetry. The manner of it has long been mastered. Modernism has passed into the DNA of the MFA programs. For all its schools and experiments, contemporary poetry is still written in the rain shadow thrown by Modernism. It is the engine that drives what is written today. And it is a tired engine.
A new poetry becomes necessary not because we want one, but because the way poets have learned to write no longer captures the way things are, how things have changed. Reality outgrows the art form: the art form is no longer equal to the reality around it. The Georgian poets wrote, coming after a century of such writing, with the depleted sensibility of Romanticism. Their poetry was in love with an antebellum England: "yet / Stands the Church clock at ten to three? / And is there honey still for tea?" The Georgians did not sense the approach of WWI, and their poetry was unequal to the horrors of trench warfare. (To see how a Georgian sensibility did respond, read Rupert Brooke: "If I should die, think only this of me: / That there's some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England." This is a beautiful poem, but one far afield from mustard gas.) It took Yeats to give British poetry its first great dose of twentieth-century realism. It took The Waste Land to enable a poetry of chaos.
The need for something new is evident. Contemporary poetry's striking absence from the public dialogues of our day, from the high school classroom, from bookstores, and from mainstream media, is evidence of a people in whose mind poetry is missing and unmissed. You can count on the fingers of one hand the bookstores in this country that are known for their poetry collections. A century ago our newspapers commonly ran poems in their pages; fifty years ago the larger papers regularly reviewed new books of poetry. Today one almost never sees a poem in a newspaper; and the new poetry collections reviewed in the New York Times Book Review are down to a few a year. A general, interested public is poetry's foremost need.
More than a decade ago, Dana Gioia recognized poetry's disjunction from public life, in his seminal essay, "Can Poetry Matter?" The question still pertains. Lacking a general audience, poets still write for one another. (Witness the growth of writing workshops and the MFA programs.) Because the book-buying public does not buy their work, at least not in commercial quantities, they cannot support themselves as writers. So they teach. But an academic life removes them yet further from a general audience. Each year, MFA programs graduate thousands of students who have been trained to think of poetry as a career, and to think that writing poetry has something to do with credentials. The effect of these...
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